New Chinese security laws threaten freedom of speech across the globe, and Western corporations stand ready to comply.
In the past few years, multiple stories have broken over the influence of the Chinese government on corporations. Often sparked over signs of solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters, a crackdown has followed for fear of offending Chinese national sensibilities. Now China has decided to officially extend its reach across the globe – with a law that criminalises opposition to the Chinese government by anyone, in any country.
This could easily be dismissed as unintentional consequences, a provision which China has no intention of enforcing – were it not for the fact that they have already issued arrest warrants for critics of the Chinese government living in the US and UK.
We could take comfort in the fact that China has no power to enforce such laws, as long as we never set foot in Chinese territory. Unfortunately, willing enforcers of Chinese hegemony have emerged from a most unexpected quarter.
Fueled by the growth of China as an appealing market to Western companies, companies are falling over themselves to avoid falling foul of the Communist Party’s disfavour.
The size of the Chinese market presents an irresistible opportunity for profit-making – as long as the sovereignty of the Communist Party over millions of people, including Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong, remains unchallenged. Video game giant Blizzard, for example, has banned players for political statements in support of Hong Kong independence.
Hollywood films have begun to self-censor in order to gain a stamp of approval from Chinese authorities, which would allow them access to Chinese cinemas.
Perhaps more concerning is how even Western universities, supposed to be places of learning and discovery, have begun to suppress freedom of expression on campuses. China-funded Confucius Institutes, along with the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, have been found to have been used as political instruments by the Chinese government.
The rise of a corporate culture in which students are treated as customers has changed the dynamics and power structures within universities. Chinese students pay two to three times the fees of UK students – and are coming in ever-increasing numbers. This is not to blame the Chinese students themselves, but highlights the increasing reliance on Chinese approval of UK institutions.
Although the influx of Chinese money is in itself a large issue, one doesn’t need to look so far abroad to find demands for censorship. The growing opposition to those who reject orthodoxies of gender identity has put a number of academics and students in precarious positions.
The idea that student safety will be compromised by exposure, not even to uncomfortable ideas, but even merely to the people who hold those ideas, flies in the face of one of the biggest benefits to university education.
Right-wing figures have long decried universities as being left-wing indoctrination centres, but often value shifts are merely a product of exposure to a myriad of different people and ideas. A move towards increasing censorship, however, risks inadvertently proving conservatives right, if it becomes clear that only a particular, supposedly progressive, mindset is allowed to flourish on campuses.
Anti-communist paranoia of the mid-century threatens to become a reality, not through infiltration and subversion but through the very market forces which were supposedly in danger.
Edit: Since the publication of this article, it has emerged that various US universities are implementing practices to help protect their students from repercussions of the new Chinese security law.
More of Stella Perrett’s art can be seen on her website.